A break

After some 15 years of active blogging – about 10 years of which has taken place on this site & domain – I have decided to take a bit of a break from blogging. You’ll see from the date of the previous post that the break already started a while back.

This is not because I’d have a lack of ideas on what to write about, quite the contrary. What I am lacking is time – or rather, I choose to temporarily prioritize the time I have away from this blog. This is a result of a number of factors, ranging from an ongoing professional detour into the world of corporate sustainability to a personal one of decisively setting roots in Melbourne in the form of building a house. I reckon those alone will keep me relatively busy for some time, and I hope to share results of the latter project later on (maybe even revive the blog into a construction blog for 2014).

Other factors are involved, too – like the dilemma many bloggers are familiar with: after a break that extends for a longer period of time (in this case due to spending a good chunk of the European summer in Europe), the perceived pressure increases to write something really good next time, which inevitably takes longer, which in turn increases the imagined pressure, which … you get the drift. Other forms of communication – like alternative channels for professional communication and Twitter for casual commentary – also tend to encroach on blogging. I will not, however, go as far as some commentators have in saying that blogging would be dead. I don’t believe that is the case, or would be the case for a very long time to come.

But clearly since I don’t have anything better to say, I should wrap up. So, see you later. I’ll leave you with some food for thought from Immoderate Greatness:

The real concern for a civilization dependant on fossil fuels is not really the moment in time when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached, after which production enters terminal decline, but rather the inexorable trend toward lower net energy and higher costs, both monetary and environmental.
[…]
It is vital to understand that technology is not a source of energy. […] Technology and good management can forestall the day of ecological reckoning, but not indefinitely.
[…]
Finally, however, resources are either effectively exhausted or no longer repay the effort needed to exploit them. As massive demand collides with dwindling supply, ecological credit that has fueled expansion and created a large population accustomed to living high off the hog is choked off. The civilization begins to implode, in either a slow and measured decline or a more rapid and chaotic collapse.

Posted in Personal | 1 Comment

Could Moore’s Law help bring back online privacy and kill the Cloud?

For a long time, everyone have “known” communications on the Internet were being watched by agencies, authorities and generally people we may not want to see them; and that’s in addition to all the data the advertising machinery gets of us. What Mr. Snowden bravely revealed about NSA’s activities just lended that knowledge additional confirmation, and we should rightly be outraged about it. As The Economist points out, the outrage shouldn’t necessarily be directed at the surveillance itself, but at least at the lack of transparency in implementing it – “Spying in a democracy depends on its legitimacy on informed consent, not blind trust.” (More great points here).

The Internet has made it vastly easier to carry out such surveillance, and people taking up cloud services en masse has made it an order of magnitude easier still; when heaps of data is conveniently available from centralized locations, of course it will be used. It would be supremely naive to think Google, Apple etc would somehow put their business on the line just to ensure 100% privacy for their customers (because that’s what it would take – it would take breaking the law to refuse to hand anything over to the government).

But could Moore’s Law help reverse our reliance on cloud services? Could it help end the centralized-cloud phenomenon altogether? Now Moore’s Law isn’t, of course, a proper “law” at all [0], and there are valid reasons to believe it will relatively soon (within 5-10 years) hit a brick wall known as the law of physics, which is much more of a real law. But what if it won’t stop quite that soon? But what if it will continue just long enough – 15-20 years – to transform your everyday mobile device into a supercomputer or a semi-intelligent agent?

Think about services like Siri or Google Search. If we use them, both know quite a bit of what we do and think. What if, instead of sending the queries to a server somewhere, all processing – including answering the questions – could be done locally, on your smartphone? That’s exactly what your supercomputer-in-a-pocket could do.

It’s not as far-fetched as you might think; your smartphone today is equivalent to what would have been called a supercomputer 15-20 years ago [1]. Fast-forward another 20 years and, given similar pace of development (a big if, but many would argue it’s feasible or even likely) and your mobile would be the equivalent of a supercomputer today.

And what if that did happen? It would mean that, with the possible exception of video, we could basically carry a copy of all the world’s knowledge in our pockets. All speech recognition and synthesis could be done with perfect accuracy on-device, as would searching for answers to almost all your questions (non-news-related anyway).

No need to send anything anywhere. In other words, all that would be private. No ad agencies or governments snooping in on your queries.

Even if you did want to have something centralized – say to enable smooth access to services across different terminals – you could have a small box, running your securely encrypted personal cloud services from your own home, connected to 100Mbps link. I say 100Mbps because it can be argued a single person will never need more bandwidth than that [2].

Personal in-pocket and at-home supercomputers would almost all but obviate the need to have massive centralized cloud infrastructure for everyday consumer services. The home cloud could also act as an anonymizing intelligent search proxy for searching real-time data from future Googles. Data centres would of course likely still be there for even more processing/storage-intensive tasks, but the majority of our online lives could be owned, operated and controlled by us. Maybe the data centres would house the AIs – or maybe we’d just have one of those running on our personal supercomputer(s) also.

I can see a lot of potential in the current shift to centralized cloud services once again shifting back towards the edges of the network. And it could be a boon for online privacy; privacy that now appears to be increasingly rare.

Notes:

[0] Strictly speaking Moore’s Law is not the right term to use for the technological developments I am describing, but it’s commonly misused in the same context so we’ll just run with that.

[1] Cray-2 had a performance of 1.9 gigaflops and was the fastest supercomputer until 1990. A Tegra 4 mobile chip, released this year, has a performance of 96 gigaflops.

[2] Yes yes, saying “never” is dangerous and one should never (ha!) do that. But the 100Mbps argument is a compelling one; in 2006 a Cisco study analysed the input bandwidth of the human brain and came to a figure of around 70Mbps. In other words, all input to the human brain – visual, audio, sensory, smell etc – is under 100Mbps of data at any given point in time. That, in turn, means that with proper encoding and appropriate interface technology, it should be possible to implement a virtual reality that is indistinguishable from reality with under 100Mbps of bandwidth. I for one don’t know what we would consistently and constantly need more bandwidth than that for. (Faster bursts for quick downloads, sure, but not at a constant level).

Posted in ICT-stuff, mobile | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

This is how you create advocates

I recently had a great customer service experience from the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) business that I wanted to share; it illustrates well how to treat customers right and how to have a dramatic, immediate impact on NPS (Net Promoter Score, a customer satisfaction/loyalty metric many companies obsess over). Now, people who know me know that I am extremely rarely impressed by anything, any brand or their customer service, so this is an exceptional story – and one that is in no way shape or form sponsored or solicited by the company in question, but rather a purely my initiative, a story of customer service done right. Just because it’s so rare to see it done right these days.

For some years now, we have used Galvanina mineral water, an Italian product. While as a rule I am against bottled water, few things beat good sparkling mineral water as a refreshment over dinner. And the glass bottle is recyclable. Anyway, it’s not considered a luxury brand and we buy it from Coles, the other participant in the local supermarket duopoly, at an affordable price. I liked the product, but wasn’t an advocate by any means. If asked, I probably would not have even remembered the brand, I just knew what the bottle looked like. In other words, it was all a very ordinary consumer-product/brand relationship.

Broken threadUntil one day, when opening one of the – physically intact – bottles, the glass thread disintegrated; there were small pieces of glass everywhere, including in the water. Not very appealing.

I basically had three options; 1) forget about it as it’s a minor thing and $h!t happens, 2) complain to Coles – where I would most likely get a refund but that’s it – or 3) contact the manufacturer. I couldn’t be bothered to drive to Coles for a small refund, so I took a picture of the thread and, not thinking, tossed the bottle into the recycling bin and shot off a quick email with the product codes & a photo to Galvanina, expecting little in return.

To my great positive surprise, what happened after that exceeded all my expectations. A day or two later I received a very nice official and profuse apology letter (email) about the situation and a request for the bottle which, alas, I no longer had. Nevertheless, they requested my address and some 24 hours later gave me a tracking number for a shipment.

They had sent me this – via FedEx, from Italy – that arrived five days later:

boxes

What can I say? My expectations might or might not have been higher than those I would have had for going to Coles, but they certainly were not high; and whatever they were, they were exceeded by a mile and then some. It’s great to see people proud of their product and willing to go the extra mile – or 10,000 miles as in this case – to keep a customer happy. As I thanked them for all this, they replied “Thank you for your kind feedback. This is because we care and we love what we do!”. I would not typically be inclined to believe something like that, but I did this time.

Aside from the obvious lessons here, there’s a hidden one as well: as far as I know, Galvanina does not run an NPS measurement or tracking system. And guess what? Good on them. You don’t need a measurement system – you just need to have a good product, be engaged, care and even love what you do – and then I think doing what’s right comes naturally.

Oh, and another lesson: try the Galvanina waters. They deserve it 🙂

Posted in Business, Personal | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The unofficial guide to writing EU research grant proposals

For the past several years, I have been involved as an independent expert, commissioned by the European Commission, to evaluate FP7 research proposals (and more recently the Horizon 2020 program). Every time I do this, it entails reading hundreds or even thousands of pages of research proposals in a relatively short time period so good, clear and concise proposal writing would be appreciated. Yet every single time I run into many proposals that frustrate the hell out of me, either because they’re just downright bad or because they might have something there but utterly and completely fail to communicate that in the proposal.

In order to help whoever is vying for funding via these channels, I offer the following advice. Please note that this is my individual view, not explicitly or implicitly condoned by the European Commission in any way, shape or form. Also note there are several experts independently reviewing every single proposal, so just writing it so that I like it will not get you any money. In other words, this advise comes with no warranty whatsoever, YMMV and all the relevant disclaimers. But here goes:

Cut the complicated language. One often wishes the writers would just get the basics of good writing right. Writing in a complicated way and using a wide range of meaningless buzzwords is not a sign that you know your domain, nor it is a sign of intelligence. At best it’s a sign of laziness, at worst it’s an attempt to cover up the lack of any real substance. Write simply. Do not try to complicate things unnecessarily; most of the time what you’re doing is completely feasible to present in very simple terms – dump the buzzwords and the pretend-intellectualism. And, please, check that the sentences you write make sense. Because sometimes they make no sense whatsoever, or do not mean anything.

Be realistic on impacts. Too many times the applicants completely forget they are operating with finite time and resources. I know the EC asks for impact assessments, but this needs to be realistic. Any talk of “saving Europe” or similar grandiose statements through just this one research project is just unrealistic and will be treated as such.

Focus; don’t try to achieve too much. It may seem that the more goals you have in a project and that the wider they are, the better it must be. It’s not. Have a clear focus, because that’s the only way to achieve something. If you focus on everything, you’re not focusing on anything and will accomplish exactly that. This is particularly important for STREP proposals. You do NOT need to address every single element in the call.

Don’t do research for research’s sake. Anything that you attempt to do that goes beyond state-of-the-art must have an application or use somewhere. It’s not good enough to say that after you research topic X for three years, you’ll have good grounds to continue the research.

Don’t waste money – get onto the ‘lean’ boat. Just having multi-year funding from the EC doesn’t mean you can use outdated project methodologies. Two iterations over three years is not “agile”. There is also no reason for you not to borrow a page or two from the Lean Startup. The EC – really the European taxpayers – don’t like to see their money wasted any more than a VC would. Keep in mind that most of the time part of the funding comes out of your tax dollars – would you invest in your project?

Don’t waste money, part II. 15% of project funding to management overhead is unacceptable. So is proposing to buy loads of gear or services at unreasonable prices.

Learn to pitch. Something you should learn from the startups; make sure you develop a compelling pitch – why should your project be funded? Don’t bury the lead on page 78, by when the reviewers will have lost any faith in you coming up with something good. It’s essential for the abstract to be compelling and engaging.

Learn to write (English). I bet you were taught to write essays in school, and scientific articles at the university. Try to remember those lessons: Use clear layout. Break into appropriate sentences and paragraphs. Reference concisely, i.e. in a way that doesn’t interfere with reading (superscripted [21] is good, [Lastname 1, Lastname 2, publication XYZ, page B, 2010] is not.). Use graphics, but make them clear. Check the spelling. Check the grammar. Write clearly. Avoid sentences that are like 100 words long. Avoid paragraphs spanning half a page. Pay attention to layout and pagination. Check the spelling and grammar again. Make sure the sentences make sense.

Did I mention you need to check the spelling and grammar? Surprising as it may be, it turns out we can’t read minds.

If, btw, your writing or scientific writing courses did _not_ teach you these things, take a better one that does.

Be specific. Particularly when discussing what it is that you’re going to be doing beyond state-of-the-art, it’s essential that you say something more than “research” this and that. And don’t forget to be realistic, too; don’t say you’re going to achieve something awesome which is clearly unrealistic. It is, however, fine to say you will try to do something.

Don’t forget business fundamentals. You need to have a story on how your thing could be used in the “real” world; often this means involving one or more business entities that somehow need to make money. Having a pure research-platform is fine, too, if it’s justified – but “build it and they will come” usually does not go down well as a strategy. Remember to engage the relevant industry in your project.

Innovate, sometimes radically. Don’t be afraid to propose something completely different as opposed to just progressing some field in an expected, linear fashion. If you think the call has inappropriate elements – because sometimes they do – don’t be afraid to criticize them and propose alternatives.

Don’t fall for neomania, i.e. making something new just for the sake of it being new. Not everything new or even innovative is worth doing – show that your use cases are actually useful and have demand, not merely “novel”. Novelty in and of itself is valueless; don’t fall for technological solutionism either.

Test your assumptions. Another concept from the Lean Startup; too many proposals list as some their core thesis assumptions that are entirely untested. At worst they are the result of groupthink of a very unrepresentative group of researchers along the lines of “We’d love this so why wouldn’t everyone?!”. If you base your project on assumptions, you need to test and validate those assumptions early. Oh, and on a related note: Gartner or some other analyst company saying so doesn’t make it so.

Get the right team; trying to make advances in areas where the members are amateurs in and not even engaging the parties with the actual state-of-the-art technology guarantees you will not get anywhere. These are not funds purely for your internal competence development.

Don’t get stuck on the Europe bit; don’t hesitate to bring in non-European partners if you can; not all SOA is of European origin and engaging organizations outside Europe can bring substantial benefits.

Manage the management right. Think about using more modern project management tools than email and Word documents.

Keep the big picture in mind. Having experts onboard is good. Having experts who can see beyond their little domain and into the macro-level developments and understand their significance is better; you need to have an understanding of the macro-environment and trends and how they might affect what you are going to do.

Finally, don’t submit a bad proposal. It just isn’t worth it. It will not get funded and you will have caused reputational damage to all participating organizations and the people identified by submitting stupid things.

Posted in Business, Innovation | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments